There are no smells online. Sights and sounds abound there, but not a single scent has yet been conveyed over the Internet. That’s especially relevant for people who use online dictionaries, as I do, and who have also spent months of their lives, as I have, in large libraries full of old books. You who have been there too know what I’m talking about; you can even re-create it from memory: there’s a certain smell, not unpleasant, not pleasant except for its association with the type of knowledge that comes via the printed word, that emanates over time from a mixture of paper, cardboard, glue, leather, thread, ink, and other things that a bookbinder could no doubt add to the list. English has a word that describes that smell: fusty.

The large and fusty Century Dictionary—a printed copy of which I confess I don’t have, and which would be more than a century old—gives as the primary meanings of fusty ‘moldy; musty; ill-smelling; rank; rancid.’ But the passage of time has carried off some of the rancidity, and the current edition of the American Heritage Dictionary gives as a secondary sense of fusty ‘old-fashioned, antique,’ with no whiff of rankness.

If the adjective musty comes from the noun must, as it does, does fusty come from fust? It does, even if fust itself is no longer in use. The Century Dictionary noted that in architecture a fust was ‘the shaft of a column, or the trunk of a pilaster.’ It traced the word back to Old French fust (modern fût), from Latin fustis, whose meanings included ‘a knobbed stick; a cudgel or club; a staff.’ Those senses make sense of our fancy verb fustigar/fustigate, which means, with decreasing literalness, ‘to beat with a club; to punish severely; to criticize harshly.’

But fustigate doesn’t explain fusty. The key to understanding fusty is the knowledge that Old French fust had extended its meaning from ‘a cudgel’ and ‘a piece of wood’ to ‘a cask that is made from wooden staves.’ And as the years pass and the wine aging within the cask takes its toll on the wood, the interior of the cask develops a musty smell. That’s why fust, which passed into English, came to designate not only ‘a cask’ but also ‘the smell inside a cask.’ From that second fust came fusty.

Spanish didn’t share in the casket-related senses that Old French fust developed. The original Latin fustis became Spanish fuste, whose meanings, some now historical, include: ‘stick; wood, timber; the wooden part of a lance; the shaft of an architectural column; the [wooden] frame of a saddle.’ In an abstraction away from any particular object, Spanish fuste can also mean ‘foundation, material, substance.’

Still within the realm of the specific, Spanish extended the meaning ‘wooden frame of a saddle’ to ‘the saddle’ itself, though that usage is now largely confined to the language of poetry and folklore. In particular, the word appears in a Spanish-language proverb that exists in numerous variants, the main one of which appears to be:

“El que no le guste el fuste, que lo tire y monte en pelo.”
“Anyone who doesn’t like the saddle should take it off and ride bareback.”

In A Dictionary of Mexican American Proverbs, Mark Glazer interprets the saying: “if you don’t like something don’t just complain and do nothing, but do something about it.”

One thing that Spanish did—though I don’t know if there was any complaining first—is create the noun afuste from French affust, now affût, a compound of fût that means ‘gun carriage,’ i.e. the [formerly wooden] supporting structure beneath a cannon. Spanish also uses its own unrelated word that means the same thing, cureña.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. missdarcyslibrary
    May 20, 2011 @ 14:06:39

    Absolutely fascinating! Thanks so much for looking into this word! And thanks for stopping by Miss Darcy’s Library 🙂


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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